To my adventures in Londinium.
I live a couple of hundred miles north of London, and visit it hardly ever. Jump on a train, it's two and a half hours away, but somehow it rarely occurs to me to take that trip.
Last week, however, I had to travel to London. I am, as some of my readers know, planning to move across the atlantic, to Texas, to marry the Red Dirt Girl, who is and was the person whose blog, back almost seven years ago, prompted me to write a comment, thanking her for her posts on poetry, art, shoes, which I had enjoyed reading, over a christmas/new-year period when I was sick, at home, and feeling sorry for myself. Her writings and the pictures and poems roused me out of my self-pity and misery. And I wrote a comment, she replied, and as her comments wouldn't allow me to post without a blogger i.d., or so I thought, I was maybe wrong, but I'd only just discovered the smorgasbord of the blog world, I started a blog. This blog.
Seven years, a chance encounter. Seven months after the first correspondence, she flew to England. I took her to York Minster, on the third day of her visit, and, sitting there, gazing up at the brightly coloured mediaeval windows, I told her that I intended to marry her, that was a promise, a vow.
And she seemed to think that was a good idea. She smiled a lot, cried a little, and we wandered around the ancient Minster Church hand in hand.
Here we are, years later. She was separated from her husband when we met, but there was a divorce to negotiate, a new life for her, living on her own terms, and I had an elderly mother, slipping into dementia, and then cancer.
RDG came over here several times, I flew to be with her too, and, a year and a half ago, I brought up the subject of that York promise again. We set it all in motion. Neither of us knew just how difficult it is for an englishman to marry an american woman. It seems so easy in the movies, but in real life you have to fill in a zillion forms. And it takes longer than you could ever imagine. First you have, of course, to locate all the bits of paperwork you'll be needing to present.
Now, I was married, way back, in 1977. And I got divorced.... um.... when? Where's the court document?
I've lived a lot of life since then, lived in other countries, other towns. I was flooded out, and lost a heap of stuff, pictures, papers.... Probably my divorce papers were there too. Well, I had to rack my brains, figure out the where and when of the marriage, try remember my ex's date of birth, I even tried to find her, facebook and google failed miserably there.
Maybe she's still married to my work-colleague's husband, maybe not, but I couldn't find her. She'd have had the copy of the divorce filed, she was a neatnik, but I can't say I regret not being able to contact her.
It took an application to the court of chancery in London to search for my divorce. And to find it, and get me court-stamped proof.
The paper-trail gets ever longer. We submitted the first application forms in December last year, and now, in August, there's a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, at last, the mysterious processes nobody will explain seem to have completed in the U.S. and her application to ask for the right to allow me to apply for a K1 visa, to enter the United States with the intention of marrying a U.S. citizen, is granted, papers passed to the United States Embassy in London.
So then I get to fill in another heap of forms, often referred to as 'packet 3', though these days you download them rather than wait for a packet to plop on the mat.
And then I get to download another set, and fill out my lifetime's medical history.
I started doing prep work for that months ago, whe I booked a whole heap of vaccinations at my doctor's, because my original records were a bit hazy, it was easier to have a few done again.
And then, I applied for an appointment for the medical examination.
The exam is required, and can only be carried out by the one medical clinic appointed by the Embassy. And that clinic is in London.
So to London I did go, travelling down on thursday, back sunday night. Stayed thusrday night in a little hotel in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum.
Thursday evening I checked out my route, the hotel booked a taxi for me...
Actually, they booked an african man in an unmarked car without a taxi-meter. Whose english was not good, and who didn't know how to get to where I needed to be. He chatted (illegally) on his phone, until I got mad at him, and started directing him by the power of google navigation. So I got there on time. No thanks to him.
I'd asked for, and expected a real taxi, a London Cab. London cab drivers are phenomenal. Unlike pretty much everywhere else in the world, in order to get a cab drivers licence, you have to demonstrate an absolute mental mastery over the areas where you will drive.
London is a complex city, no simple rectangular grids here, London's roads weave, bend, change names, no, they're not numbered, there's no such thing as 'a city block', but a London Cabbie must memorise it all, no maps or navigation devices, your cabbie must know the best way, in all varying conditions, from any one place to any other. It's called 'The Knowledge'.
Around London you'll see young men (and women) on scooters or small motorbikes, with a map on a big board above the handlebars, weaving through the traffic, darting down side-streets. They're 'doing the knowledge', memorising London.
Neurologists and psychologists, in turn, study them. Because these men and women, their brains change as they learn, building up links and mental agility, and be assured, none will pass without having first to demonstrate that uncanny processing power.
When they are licensed, none will ever know if the passenger who gets in is an ordinary traveller, or if they're from the Public Carriage Office.
Refusing a fare, taking the passenger by an unneccessarily long route, even discourteous behaviour, can get a driver's badge revoked, and thus stop him from working as a taxi driver.
"The taxicab driver is required to be able to decide routes immediately in response to a passenger's request or traffic conditions, rather than stopping to look at a map, relying on satellite navigation or asking a controller by radio. Consequently, the 'Knowledge' is the in-depth study of a number of pre-set London street routes and places of interest that taxicab drivers in that city must complete to obtain a licence to operate a black cab. It was initiated in 1865, and has changed little since. It is claimed that the training involved ensures that London taxi drivers are experts on London, and have an intimate knowledge of the city.
It is the world's most demanding training course for taxicab drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve 'appearances' (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination.
The 320 main (standard) routes, or 'runs', through central London of the Knowledge are contained within the 'Blue Book' (officially known as the 'Guide to Learning the Knowledge of London' and which is actually pink), produced by the Public Carriage Office which regulates licensed taxis in London. In all some 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross are covered along with the major arterial routes through the rest of London.
A taxicab-driver must learn these routes, as well as the 'points of interest' along those routes including streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, restaurants and historic buildings.
The Knowledge includes such details as the order of theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, or the names and order of the side streets and traffic signals passed on a route.
There are a number of Knowledge Schools that provide books, maps and classroom tuition which help Knowledge students to learn the 320 runs and points of interest.
There are separate shorter courses, for suburban London, with 30 to 50 'runs' depending on the sector.
During training, would-be cabbies, known as Knowledge boys (or girls), usually follow these routes around London on a motor scooter, and can be identified by the clipboard fixed to the handlebars and showing details of the streets to be learned that day. Taxi-driver applicants must be 'of good character', meeting strict requirements regarding any criminal record, then first pass a written test which qualifies them to make an 'appearance'. At appearances, Knowledge boys and girls must, without looking at a map, identify the quickest and most sensible route between any two points in metropolitan London that their examiner chooses. For each route, the applicants must recite the names of the roads used, when they cross junctions, use roundabouts, make turns, and what is 'alongside' them at each point."
So, my 'taxi' driver disappointed me with his pathetic lack of knowledge and poor driving. It's not as though the fare was significantly cheaper either. I'd have far preferred to pay a real London cab-driver for my journey, secure in the knowledge that he'd take me by the best available route, and drive professionally and safely all the way. (another digressing snippet: A damaged Taxi may not operate until repaired. Therefore, London Taxi drivers are extremely proficient at avoiding even the most minor scrapes).
Where was I? Oh yes, at the Doctor's. Handing in my paperwork, passport,birth certificate, and my Police Certificate, which declares that I have no record of arrests or convictions anywhere in Britain.
Quite why the medical examiner needs to see that one, I don't know.
And in return, I get a clipboard and a pen with another heap of questions to answer. Waiting room.
After finishing that, I'm called for a chest x-ray.
America needs to be sure I do not have tuberculosis. (Or syphilis, or HIV. Those are the ones specifically mentioned. I'd expect bubonic plague and rabies are not much wanted either).
My xray is fine, no nasty shadows, so I'm returned to the waiting room where I fidget, and watch the other inmates fidgeting.
The doctors' is in a rather grand apartment, remnants of the home it once was can still be seen. Big rooms, fine plasterwork. I'm reminded why I'm there, by the little fanlight window over the waiting room door.
A doctor comes, with a folder of notes, and calls my name. It's on, the exam, where I'm prodded, poked, and questioned. Every bit of me is up for grabs. My manly parts are scrutinised by the lady doctor. Sheesh... No foreplay, I mean, I'd like to be wined and dined, chatted up, etc, before a lady gropes my dangly bits.
And then she punctures my arm and draws blood.
Eyes, ears, nose, throat... reflexes, knees, toes, I'm scrutinised. And, it seems I've passed.
Blood pressure a bit high. "You're not just a little stressed, by any chance, right now?", she asks, smiling.
And, thank you, Knightsbridge Doctors, you made the whole thing a lot less stressful than I'd been imagining.
Out onto the street, and a huge leap closer to my future.
Just a few minutes walk away, I happen on a big house in a square, with people waiting outside. It's The Wallace Collection. And it opens at ten, five minutes away.
Pictures from in here will be my next post.
Thanks to all who wished me luck in comments on my "Soubriquet is in London" post, I do truly appreciate the encouragement. My computer's been acting up, which leads to the late posting of a follow-up, after tracking the problems to the touchpad/mouse driver. It took hour after hour of messing about and scanning for malware, to find and fix the fault.
And this post ? I'm a slow typist, a slower poster. Nearly four hours.